For many of our Indian readers Puglia could still be an unfamiliar territory, though not as much as Piglio- the small village in the Frosinone province of Lazio, known for Cesanese del Piglio docg red wine, about which delWine had written an article earlier. Chasing Cherries in Cesanese of Ciociaria
Diversity within the region
Puglia is, however, one of the 20 regions (as States are known in Italy) known for its value-for-money red wines made from indigenous varieties-especially Nero di Troia, Negroamaro and Primitivo (known as Zinfandel in the USA and India). If the map of Italy is a boot, Puglia is the heel. It is a very long region, running over 380 kms along the eastern border. It has 6 provinces: going north to south: Foggia, Barletta-Adria-Trani (BAT), Bari, Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce. Northern part is very fertile but as you go southwards, it is warmer, the land is rocky, sandy, calcareous, red, black-with a wide spectrum and the climate- temperature variation.
North is known for Nero di Troia whereas the middle part is the Negroamaro territory. South is popular for the third grape variety that makes the well-known Trinity- Primitivo, along with Troia and Negroamaro. There are of course some production areas common for two varieties. There are 13 red varieties including an almost extinct Susumaniello, that has been revived with 40 hAs already under cultivation and a few producers committed to bring it back to the wine life. Malvasia Nera also finds itself in several blends. Whites are Verdeca, Fiano Minutolo (they have nothing to do with Fiano in Campania), Fiano di Puglia, Malvasia, Viognier, Chardonnay etc, making 14 varieties. Because of the climate, it is very difficult to produce quality white wines though a few of the producers have succeeded by using modern technology and controlling the fermentation process.
Puglia vs. Sicily- the southern cousins
Puglia has a lot more similarity to Sicily than the northern regions- climate and soil being just one of them. Both regions have been attacked by outsiders most frequently over the centuries, with the invaders leaving their mark on the culture, lifestyle including wine-making and typical grapes. Both are known for their generally hot climate though Sicily gets snow in Mount Etna and northern Puglia has a climate colder than the South. They both have a long history of wine making- mostly with indigenous but different varieties characterized by bulk wine exported mostly to North Italy and France till a couple of decades ago. Sicily is as much known for the white wines produced in majority as Puglia is known for red wine. They are both stubborn and passionate peoples-leaving their individual imprints on the wines as well.
Both enjoyed the business boom after European Union allowed importing of bulk wines and the high alcohol, cheap wines became de rigueur till the early nineties when the ‘renaissance’ period started for both regions. Using newer technology without losing sight of the tradition, both went aggressively in developing new markets- with Sicily leading and Puglia taking smaller first steps.
Creating Wine Identity for Apulia
In an effort to promote the gastronomy of the region and showcase the increasing quality of Puglia wines, a few producers like Tenute Rubino, Candido, Conti Zecca joined hands with the social co-operatives, the backbone of Puglia wine industry who have been shifting from bulk to the bottle and quantity to quality-like Cantina Due Palme, Produttori Vini di Manduria and Consorzio Vini di Manduria and formed a voluntary association about 5 years ago called Puglia Best Wine, with Luigi Rubino as the President. The objective was to promote the region as a whole, a quality producing wine region and not only for bulk wine as perceived by the rest of the world.
Last year, Apulia Wine Identity was organised at Trani for journalists from countries as far away as Japan, USA, Brazil, including one from India, with 21 producers roped in to join the programme devised so that the opinion maker journalists could create the awareness about Puglia wines in their countries and help promote the wines from this region. With a visit to the 4 different regions and wineries, and blind tasting and tutored tasting of over 200 wines including the Top Wines, the event was quite successful as a rookie event, but for the treacherous weather. President Luigi Rubino had promised that it would be held in future in June when it was warmer with lots of sunshine.
At the second event held between June 12-17 in Lecce, the venue for the conference after a couple of days of visits to wineries in the six territories, there were 26 producers taking part with the number of journalists going up to about 60 and the availability of wines to over 250 labels that were tasted blind at the venue, with lunches, dinners and at various forums.
Apulia Food Identity
If Puglia is known for robust wines with increasing quality, it is also famous for the charming simplicity of its cuisine. As Rubino explained, at the inaugural event at the old open Roman amphitheater, the Apulia Wine Identity had teamed up with Apulia Opera Food, ‘organizing 22 chefs from 19 quality restaurants of the region to showcase the gastronomy and synergy between our restaurants and our wines which is the very keystone of Apulian culinary culture’ (a separate report in a future issue-editor).
Visit to the Wineries
The event included a 2-day programme before the conference when the journalists were invited to visit 4 wineries of the territory of their choice; there were six options. Selecting a different part of Puglia this time, the focus was more in and around the Salento and Taranto (not in any way related to Toronto which my blackberry insisted in spell checks!) region for me.
Feudi di San Marzano is a 50 year-old co-operative with 1500 members. Having 800 hA under its wings, it produces 900,000 bottles a year. Exporting to 60 countries, it is well equipped to offer wines of varying quality and prices and for a country like India there are many choices available. Keeping the traditional methods alive, it has kept up the investments to bring in the modern technology. Primitivo and Negroamaro are the signature grapes although it makes a delicious white wine from Verdeca and a Rose from Negroamaro.
Mille Una near Lizzano is the winery to visit if you want to meet one of the most apassanatos of winemaking- Dario Cavallo who welcomed us with a special Primitivo-with 19% alcohol. Shrugging his shoulders he says with semi-pride that his father made it with 22% alcohol in one vintage year (no fortification-just pure ripe grapes with special indigenous yeast and a lot of experimentation). Selling price of the wine at the cellar door was a cool €62. He took us to his vineyards a few kms away, where both the Primitivo and Negroamaro vines grow on bushes (Alberello training system) and are over 50-80 years old and the fruit concentration is a measly 10-12 quintals a hA. No wonder the production is 6500 bottles and wines are expensive but passion for Primitivo is visible here. Although not every producer agrees with him, Cavallo says that Primitivo wines with high alcohol and sugar should be drunk chilled at 10-12° C to keep the flavours more pleasant-he suggests even fish may be able to handle wines like that.
Accademia di Racemi is another of the producers, with a confusing name, who are small but proud of the history and terroir of the land. Personally involved in the research relating to Primitivo that brought the focus on Zinfandel being the same wine, Gregory Perrucci, the partner claims to be the only non-Californian member of ZAP- Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. If Rajeev Samant smuggled Zinfandel vines into India, Gregory bought the best vines and smuggled them in his bag into Puglia. Single-handedly, he fought with the government authorities to give wine from this grape a DOP status. His Felline vineyard Primitivo was perhaps the first wine in the Primitivo di Manduria area. He also claims to have revived the Susumaniello grape in this territory that has been promoted also by Tenute Rubino and a few other passionate producers. One could spend a long time in discovering the roots of Puglia wines with this young English-speaking wine maker who is comfortable and passionate enough to discuss Primitivo and other Puglianese wines with anyone.
Consorzio Produttori Vini di Manduria
Established in Manduria, the heart of Primitivo producing area, this 400-member co-operative has about 800 hA under its wings- with almost half of it devoted to Primitivo. It has a beautiful wine museum made by the efforts of its members and it should be a destination for any wine lover visiting that part of Italy. It has a wide range of labels to suit everyone’s pocket. One can buy wine cheaper than petrol here (stating with €1 a liter), at a dispensing station which seemed to be as busy as one in Delhi when the petrol price increase is announced-metaphorically speaking. It gets so hot in summer that dry ice is transported to farmers to bring the grapes back to the winery, even after getting the right pH value. The white wines are very fruity, not as much because of the day-night temperature difference but because the soil is calcareous rocks. They make up to 9 million bottles starting from low-mid range wines and could present a great opportunity to get pure wines costing reasonably, in India.
Results of Tasting 2011
The visiting journalists were formally introduced to the principal grapes –Nero di Troia, Negroamaro and Primitivo at Santa Chiara Monumental Complex-the museum popularly known as MUST. Starting with the tasting of around 20 wines made from Negroamaro- the Puglianese claim the first Italian Rose was made in Puglia using Negroamaro grape. A tasting of about 20 wines-one session with Negroamaro and the other with Primitivo brought out several interesting features, some wines were very good, while others had minor production flaws-though most were quite quaffable wines. (Details in another future article).
There were two tasting sessions- one with Nero di Troia and the other with Primitivo. The visitors were asked to taste them blind and give them their ratings base on which the vintage would be rated. The highlight was however, the tasting of Top Wines of Puglia where over 50 top red wines from across the region were tasted-guided by Marco Sabellico, the Senior editor of Gambero Rosso who are collaborating in the project. Although, I felt that the Primitivo had slightly less alcohol this year than what I had tasted last year, this could also be explained by more presence of Colle di Gioia, a relatively newer region where the grapes are at higher altitude and the climate is cooler, with the alcohol being almost a degree lower than in the Salento, Manduria area.
The journalists were asked to taste and rate the 3 significant red wines of the region-Nero di Troia, Negroamaro and Primitivo and rate them blind as they would in any wine competition- more an exercise to get the general opinion than rate individual wines as in the competition.
Surprisingly, the wines were quite consistent with last year- Primitivo (86.5/100) scored the highest followed by Negroamaro (86) and Nero di Troia (85.5). Last year, the wines scored 86, 83.5 and 85 respectively- showing an overall improvement in the quality over the last year.
Wines for India
Negroamaro and Primitivo are very interesting grapes for India. Primitivo has slightly higher alcohol level- so does Zinfandel but one can find examples of lower alcohol too. Having higher alcohol might be a blessing for the people drinking hard alcohol-especially women as the wines are relatively sweet. However, as for the dessert wines –the docg Primitivo wines may not have any scope for a long time. The Top wines we tasted had an oomph and personality for which the producers seek recognition and monetary concentration due to much lower yields and higher costs of production. If there can be a meeting of minds between the quality and price, there can be good scope for these wines. Even Verdeca and Fiano Minutolo have a certain charm as white wines- being different and unique with no direct comparison with other regions and both are very quaffable.
Future of Puglia wines
There is no doubt that the quality of Puglia wines is on the increase. More than 52% wines are now dop or igt. However, the prices are also finding a quantum jump with Apulia Best Wine declaring a jump of up to 35% depending upon the area and variety, amply indicating that one should get into these wine imports fast because this will help creating the brand image.
For earlier articles, click here:
Apulia Wine Identity: Primitivo- The Potent Prince of Puglia
Puglia has a Wine Identity
List of Participating producers Tasting with Producers Bottle Display
For a short video chat with Subhash Arora, click HERE